Prototyping: How to test a new direction for your career

In 2016, Mollie was finishing business school and eager to jump back into the working world. Having spent her business school days immersed in technology trends and the startup ecosystem, Mollie thought she knew what lay ahead.

But her job hunt was about to take an unexpected turn.

Based on her work with her coach and crew, Mollie had identified a career criteria around technological innovation in the consumer sector. She wanted to work at the ideation and early building stages of product development, determining customer needs and experimenting with products and business models. If she was writing a How Might I question back then, it would have been How Might I bring new technology to market in products that truly help everyday customers?

She thought she knew the answer too. “New technology? It’s got to be a startup,” she thought. 

So Mollie took this self-written job spec out to the market. She used her network and some LinkedIn stalking to identify a long list of people who might have ideas of relevant startups and roles. The feedback was a game-changer. From her conversations (there were dozens over a few months of exploration), she learned that startups don’t have the time or the money to hire someone like Mollie to come ponder different ways to utilize their technology. They’re already building and selling, or they’d be dead in the water. The job spec in Mollie’s head was not a role that startups needed.

So Mollie started asking new questions. “Okay, so can you think of any other organizations or jobs where I could work with new technologies (like AI or augmented reality) at the earliest stages of product development”. This question is what led to Mollie’s discovery of the design consulting world, and eventually brought her to IDEO. 

Mollie’s draft job spec, as simple as one sentence, proved an excellent learning tactic. She tested it out with people in the startup space and quickly learned it wouldn’t work. This enabled her to pivot her job search to a different space, and saved her time and perhaps even a few wrong jobs in startup land (which she has now happily re-entered).

This is an example of a career prototype. 

What is a career prototype?

Prototyping is testing something new in a small, experimental way.

You might be prototyping already – maybe you tried to walk through a new neighbourhood a couple of times to imagine what it would be like if you rented an apartment there.

Maybe you flew to Bali with your laptop for two weeks to prototype what it would feel like to commit to the digital nomad lifestyle.

Maybe you borrowed a puppy from your friends for a long weekend to better understand what responsibilities come with being a pet owner.

A prototype is a question made tangible.

Designers have a saying “build to think,” and we find that even just the simple step of sketching an idea on paper helps us understand the idea better and name the assumptions we’re making about it.

For example, when a team of IDEO’ers was building a new vegetable delivery service, they bought a bunch of veg from a local farm and delivered it to customers themselves. This taught them a lot about the costs, time, and customer requirements of the service.

There are about a million ways to prototype something, the important thing is that you learn from the experiment.

When it comes to careers, there are a lot of big, expensive ways to change one’s career. Most of us switch jobs without trying the new one first. A lot of us rush into degrees without first testing if we love the topic. Luckily, just like in design, there are a million ways to prototype a career change.

How you can prototype your career

Here are a couple of ways to prototype your career.

1. Bring your ideas into conversations

It’s one thing to ask people for career advice. It’s another to bring them something to which they can react.

If you go into a conversation asking for something generic, you’ll get good, but rather generic, advice. Instead, test out your ideas on your listener. Tell them you’re thinking of joining an early-stage startup as their first growth hire. Or you’re considering doing a part-time master’s degree in statistics. People react to concrete ideas. If you give them something specific, they can tell you specific, helpful information like what an early-stage startup will be looking for in this hire, or how to evaluate different master’s programs.

This is design. You’re inching closer to those ideas but understanding more of what it would take, and what it might look like. This is key information to help you decide whether to take that path or go in a different direction.

2. Do the thing you want to try in a very small way

  • If you’re thinking about going back to school, sit in on a lecture.
  • If you want to become a nurse, shadow one for a day.
  • If you want to work in renewable energy, do some research and write a blog post about a topic in the space. Gauge your excitement levels as you dig in, is the topic sparking more interest or satisfying your curiosity and enabling you to move on?
  • If you’re considering retiring, try a sabbatical first.
  • Internships, part-time work, and volunteer gigs are other ways to sample work before committing full time. 

How to make the most of your career prototypes

Timebox your career experiments 

Timeboxing your experiments helps. Ask yourself “How can I learn the most about this career direction in the shortest amount of time?” If you only had one week to make a decision, which activities would bring the most bang for your buck? Who would you talk to? Which sites would you visit? Could you do this job (or observe someone doing it) for one day?

Embody the designer’s mindset

The key mindset when it comes to prototyping careers is “Build to Think”. Or put a different way, “Bias for Action”. Designers know that we learn more and faster when we make progress in the real world. Whatever it is you’re mulling over, you’ll gain clarity sooner if you start doing it now.

There’s another saying in design that goes, “If a picture is worth a thousand words, a prototype is worth a thousand meetings.” Applied to careers, we would wager that “if a picture is worth a thousand words, a career prototype is worth 10,000 hours in a job you don’t love.”

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